Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland.

By Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile Books Ltd, London

Every society we know has tried to exercise controls over sexuality and its consequences. In Jewish culture, to be born out of wedlock was to be punished “unto the fourth generation”. In the Soviet Union – which only fell in 1989 – homosexual acts were punishable either by the death penalty, or by exile to a gulag. When, in 1970, the French academic Michel Foucault – whom Professor Ferriter cites repeatedly, sometimes adoringly – proclaimed himself to be a homosexual, a reprimand came from the French Communist Party to the effect that all he needed were the skills of a real woman (to turn him into a “real” Frenchman). In Islamic society, “honour killings” are still meted out to a young woman – often by her own brothers – if she is judged to have behaved with impropriety.

         Sexual taboos, in short, are universal, and even those anthropologists who fancifully claimed to have found some tribe which is happily permissive – such as Margaret Mead – are later discovered to have been entirely mistaken, if not outrightly fraudulent. Tribal life is most particularly hedged about with taboos: perhaps because undeveloped peoples know that sexuality can be savage.

     In Ireland, too, as we all know, authoritarian controls often prevailed over sexual behaviour, and in our generation, coming of age in the 1960s, we rightly rebelled against such controls – they were well past their usefulness at that point. It was not true that men wouldn’t respect you unless you stayed a virgin until marriage. It was not true that masturbation led to blindness (although, as there is often something in old lore, current biological research indicates that too much masturbation can build up blood pressure behind the eyes which could cause vision problems). And it certainly was not true, as a dear aunt of mine once assured me, “there was no rape in Ireland in the 1930s”. There has always been rape: and I wholly agree with Camille Paglia when she states that it is only the civilising controls of society that can restrain or inhibit what is essentially a surge of animal male arousal.

     Professor Diarmaid Ferriter chronicles, in meticulously researched detail,  all the authoritarian controls, and general repertoire of misery, associated with old Catholic Ireland: the concealed pregnancies and shameful infanticides, the venereal disease and laughably obtuse censorship, the wretchedly ignorant marriages and unhappy, secret homosexuals, the lack of sex-education, the charges of bestiality, the child abuse, the prostitution.

         It is all here in carefully documented detail and his book will stand as a valuable source for those interested in this sphere of social history. His take, generally, is that pretty well everything in traditional Ireland was bad, unkind and repressive – except for the prostitutes of Old Monto in Dublin, who, naturally, had hearts of gold – and almost everything associated with liberal and progressive mores is good and enlightened.

        A more nuanced view of human nature might be that you find both the positive and the negative in all kinds of unexpected locations: and that even some traditional Irish Catholics may have had the disposition for pleasure and an instinctive grasp of “doin’ what comes nat’relly”. (My own research in the field is that the unlettered country lad is not necessarily inferior in the erotic arts to intellectuals, or even academic professors.)

         Ferriter accepts unquestioningly the claim that Irishwomen in the feminist movement of the 1970s were “more interested in avoiding pregnancy than in achieving orgasm”: but the two are not necessarily contradictory. My late friend Nuala Fennell, one of the founder-members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, was a very sensible supporter of contraceptive change, but also gave a joyful interview to Hot Press – while she was a Government Minister – on the benefits of orgasm (as it happens, Nuala’s very fulfilled sex-life was achieved within the context of a marriage whose courtship had been chastely conventional). On the IWLM and its reluctance to tackle divorce, Professor Ferriter also accepts the claim, unquestioningly, that the failure to include divorce in the original 1970 manifesto was “a measure of …utter innocence”, and that it did not really occur to us that marriage could be legally terminated.

This is simply not so, and he ought to amend this passage in future editions. The omission of divorce from the 1970 feminist manifesto was a sensible tactic based on the principle that politics is “the art of the possible”. You go forward with the reforms that are most pressing and on the firmest ground: you do not start introducing other changes which are less persuasive, and possibly a distraction.

As woman’s editor of the Irish Press then, I received letters from women about the need for legal change over the archaic contraception laws: I received many letters about the plight of widows: and letters about support for separated or abandoned wives. But I never received a single letter from a woman urging the legal introduction of divorce. That was for a very practical reason: the property laws before the 1980s would have disfavoured any married woman divorced against her will. Countrywomen knew perfectly well they would lose entitlement to the farm under a permissive divorce law not underpinned by property law reform.

During the debate preceding the 1985 divorce referendum, many feminists made this point. Mary Cummins, an ardent feminist writer in the Irish Times researched and wrote a major feature about divorce in agricultural Ireland and came to the emphatic conclusion that divorce would be catastrophic for women in Irish country life: how do you split up 30 acres of family history?

     Which brings me to another point, which Professor Ferriter either ignores or evades: many traditional values and controls on sexuality were upheld and indeed enforced by women themselves. In the text, he accuses me of under-rating misogyny (citing something I wrote about how we come to see that our life-choices do not always bringing the fulfilment we imagine). I rebut this charge of under-rating misogyny – and some of the statements in Dail Eireann by male deputies were indeed antediluvian. 

        Yet I have also observed throughout long experience that women in all cultures are usually more sexually conservative, because they calculate that women themselves have much to lose from a permissive society. The ageing wife fears being thrown over for a newer, trophy model; the young teenager fears her boyfriend will reject her if she doesn’t sleep with him, or perform oral sex on him, however distasteful it might be for her – ask any agony aunt about the letters she receives on this theme; the liberated, happy-to-lucky single woman out on the town fears rape and sexual assault in a culture which insists that every woman is “gagging for it”.

   And many women intensely  dislike the deluge of porn that commercialised sex facilitates, and which men, overwhelmingly, use. Of course women wish to affirm their freedom and their choices, and laws had to be changed to correct old strictures: but that doesn’t mean that women in general are invariably libertarian on sexual questions. They are not.

     Ferriter does admit that we do need new “boundaries” of some kind, now that the old sexual controls are obsolete. It is for a new generation to decide what those boundaries will be. But in his condemnation of the past, he fails to understand that many social controls were what the neo-Darwinists call “survival strategies”. Post-Famine Irish society could, perhaps, only survive through the kind of sexual prudence – and sexual repression, too – which it imposed. As John Healy wrote so memorably in “Nineteen Acres” – these fragile dynasties wrenching an existence from the land simply could not afford to be thrown off course by heedlessness, fecklessness, or indeed any unregulated passion, let alone a life of hedonism. And Freud himself recognised the need for repression in Civilisation and Its Discontents. Without repressing the libido at certain points, there is no higher brain development: or, in the old Yiddish phrase – “When stands up the cock, then falls down the brain.” 

     A very diligently researched book from the Professor of History at UCD; but very much from the Politically Correct perspective, the impact, curiously, rather adding up to an old Irish lamentation: ochone agus ochone agus ochone! Weren’t we the most distressful country that ever yet was seen!  ENDS